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Local leaders working to boost civics education


Alarm bells have been sounding for several years about the lack of effective civics education in the nation’s schools, and though Ohio is no exception it has spurred Buckeye action. One of the recent examples of national concern was last year when then-U.S. Secretary of Education John King called for strengthening civics in the K-12 social studies curriculum.

This was just the latest of many concerns that moved a group of Daytonians — led by one of the city’s oldest service clubs, the Exchange Club of Dayton – to form a coalition, now chaired by U.S. District Judge Walter Rice, to search for improvement. It began in 2011 when Sinclair Community College dedicated a beautiful new Freedom Shrine display and Judge Rice was the featured speaker.

He called the shrines – displays of founding documents originally shown across the country in two Freedom Trains – vital to teaching each generation the responsibilities of citizenship. But even with resources like this, he explained later, it was clear something wasn’t working in our education system.

Consequently, he outlined the problem for the coalition this way: “I believe that our decision, made a generation or two ago to de-emphasize the teaching of civics, government, and citizenship, in our schools, has eroded and will continue to erode our way of life. We absolutely must take positive proactive steps at this point. If we do not, then I truly fear that the founding documents which the Exchange clubs have always featured in their Freedom Shrines will become nothing more than wall decorations rather than being understood as, and seen as, sources of our freedoms, our liberties, and the American dream.”

Over the years, the Dayton Exchange Club has provided Freedom Shrines to most area schools. In recent years members began questioning whether they were just “nice displays” of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and other historical highlights, or were actually being used in civics education. It seemed to several members that the connection was tenuous at best, as Judge Rice warned. That, and increasing amounts of news about the civics deficit, got the coalition’s study moving.

The American Bar Association has made repeated calls for better civics education, so it was a natural to ask the Dayton Bar’s advice. Its representatives recommended ABA’s materials for use in schools. They helped the collaborative effort understand that both content and teaching time are in relatively short supply in Ohio.

This moved the club committee – including retired Common Pleas Judge Patrick Foley, retired Wright State Professor Martin Arbagi, and business consultant Tom Norwalk, and this writer – to investigate ways to strengthen the state curriculum. Judge Rice generously agreed to give his time to the effort, arranging meetings with many local contacts.

The committee found that quite a few scholars and public figures – former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Sen. John Glenn among them – were seeking better civics education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress released last year showed, as O’Connor and Glenn noted in their initiative, that eighth-graders “aren’t just failing at civics and history. They fundamentally do not understand our democratic system of government.”

On a higher level, a 2014 study or 1,098 four-year colleges and universities found a majority of U.S. college graduates didn’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general commanded American troops at Yorktown. And that just touched the surface of their civics ignorance.

Against that background, the committee began a series of meetings with members of the State Board of Education, State Sen. Peggy Lehner of Kettering, University of Dayton Professor Thomas J. Lasley, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the League of Women Voters and area teachers of social studies, which encompasses American history and government. Judge Foley said visits with the latter were vital because teachers face sometimes frustrating time constraints after curriculum mandates from Columbus.

There was early guidance for the group from New Hampshire, where retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter and the New Hampshire Bar worked to improve civics education in their state. Souter in a number of talks in recent years has warned of the dangers of “civic erosion” caused by either misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of American history and government.

While there is consensus on what the problem is, the solution is elusive. Judge Rice summed up the committee’s preliminary findings in a letter to Sen. Lehner, who heads the Ohio Senate education committee. This became even more important because Ohio’s social studies standards are up for review in 2017. The National Standards for Civics and Government, he said, could serve as a clearer benchmark in Ohio for better civics instruction. There is also agreement, Rice added, that civics instruction should start in earlier grades and might become part of the Language Arts curriculum by showing how to write to officials. The League of Women Voters’ guidance materials would be useful here as well as input from the state’s Bar Associations.

The situation has not gone unrecognized by Ohio legislators and educators. Ohio’s Founding Documents Act provides that testing (somewhat controversial in itself) “shall require demonstration of mastery of American history and American government content.” The controversy accompanying its passage centered on whether it is all viewed positively or should highlight the evils of institutions such as slavery and subsequent racism. Efforts have also been made to bring elements of civics education into other social studies components.

Along these lines, the coalition responded to the Ohio Department of Education’s invitation for public comments on improving the Ohio civics curriculum. It is all under study in Columbus and legislative leaders expect recommendations this year.

In the meantime, the coalition is continuing its work and notes that would-be reformers could do well to study an essay by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the University of Pennsylvania. The abstract of it states:

“This essay explores the value and state of civics education in the United States and identifies five challenges facing those seeking to improve its quality and accessibility: (1) ensuring that the quality of civics education is high is not a state or federal priority; (2) social studies textbooks do not facilitate the development of needed civic skills; (3) upper-income students are better served by our schools than are lower-income individuals; (4) cutbacks in funds available to schools make implementing changes in civics education difficult and (5) reform efforts are complicated by the fact that civics education has become a pawn in a polarized debate among partisans.”

Right now the coalition here believes, as Judge Rice stated, that the National Standards on Civics and Government could – if implemented properly – play a large part in preparing young people for the responsibilities of citizenship. But the continuing effort will require more than just a local coalition of advocates to turn hopes into reality.

William H. Wild is a former editorial page editor for the Dayton Journal Herald. He lives in Oakwood.



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